The Israel of God (Part 1)

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The belief that Israel is a nation before God forever is one held almost fanatically by some professing Christians. In fact, to deny that the modern state of Israel (as she is called) located in the Middle East is the people of God is heresy in some circles. Reformed Christianity teaches unashamedly that the church (made up of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ) is God's chosen people. One who teaches this today in some circles will be labelled as "replacement theologian" (you believe that the church replaces Israel!), "supersessionist" (you believe that the church supersedes Israel) or simply "anti-Semite" (you hate the Jews). 

 

Let me remind you, before we continue this study that Jesus forbids His disciples to call one another pejorative, insulting names such as "thou fool" or "Raca" (Matt. 5:22). 

In addition, let me remind you that the question concerning Israel's status is to be answered on the basis of the Word of God, not on the basis of feelings, desires, preferences, or even a study of history or politics in the Middle East.

If you cannot agree to those principles there is hardly any point in your reading further. 

Israel: A Concise History

The name "Israel" first appears in Genesis 32:38 when the name of the man Jacob was changed to Israel. The nation or people of Israel, therefore, derives its name from him. The origin of the people of God must be sought earlier, of course, in Abraham; and before that God's people were found (after Adam, Eve and Abel) among the descendants of Shem (as opposed to the descendants of Cain [Gen. 4:16-5:32]). 

Abraham was promised the land of Canaan as his everlasting possession (Gen. 13:15). However, it is clear from Genesis that Abraham himself never possessed the land, "no, not so much as to set his foot on" (Acts 7:5). Neither Isaac, nor Jacob, nor Jacob's sons, nor grandsons ever possessed the land . The "children of Israel" were in Egyptian slavery for some 400 years. Not until the time of Joshua did possession of the land begin; and not until the time of David and Solomon did the Lord give all the land to the twelve tribes, and they did not possess it for very long. After the reign of Solomon, ten tribes split from Judah and existed as a separate kingdom for some 200 years. They were taken captive by the Assyrians and never restored. Some 150 years later, Babylon took the remaining 2 tribes captive and destroyed Jerusalem which remained a heap of rubble for some 70 years. 

Therefore, Israel possessed the land in its entirety for only about a handful of centuries. 

After the return from captivty, Israel (as a nation) never possessed the land again. Various nations governed Israel during the so-called "intertestamentary period" (during which time Rome rose to power and the Herods [Edomites!] ruled over Israel as kings under Roman rule). By the time Jesus Christ came into the world Israel was a miserable vassal state of the mighty Roman Empire. A generation after the resurrection of Christ Jerusalem was again destroyed and the Jews were scattered to the four corners of the earth. During that whole period no descendant of David ever sat on David's throne, although in God's covenant mercy the line of David itself was preserved unto  the coming of Christ. 

Throughout the centuries the Jews remained scattered throughout the nations, but they always retained their distinct identity. There is no doubt that the Jews have been mistreated in history, even in nominally Christian countries. As awful as the persecution of the Jews is, we have no right to allow a natural sympathy for the Jews, or a rightful condemation of such horrors as the Holocaust, to cloud our judgment on the subject of Biblical interpretation.

In 1948 Israel was declared to be a nation. In 1967 Israel, having defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, annexed Jerusalem and made it her capital city, although politically Jerusalem's status as Israel's modern capital is in dispute. Many Christians see Israel's restoration as highly significant in God's prophetic calendar and as a sign of the Second Coming of Christ. Others are excited at the prospect of a mass conversion of ethnic Jews and even of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, where the Dome of the Rock now stands. 

The land promise to Abraham must be understood in one of three ways, 1) Abraham did indeed receive the land as God promised. This is ruled out by Acts 7:5; 2) Abraham will receive the land in the future during a supposed Millennium when Abraham will be raised from the dead. This is an absurd position, and would allow Abraham to possess the land only for 1,000 years, not forever; or 3) Abraham never expected to receive the literal plot of earth called "Israel" or "Canaan" but expected to receive a heavenly Caanan, of which the earthly land was but a picture or type of the real promise. This promise he (with all believers) receives already and will receive in a greater way in the new heavens and new earth. This is the clear teaching of the Word of God (Heb. 11:9-10, 15-16; Rom. 4:13; Rev. 21:1ff).

Therefore, Reformed believers are not excited by the events of 1948 or1967; and we certainly have no interest in some rebuilt temple, a prospect we abhor with all our soul. 

Who Is Israel? 

In the first century AD the people of Israel had become carnal, unbelieving and self righteous. John the Baptist and Jesus encountered a people proud of their ethnic heritage who had to be shaken out of their security and called to repentance. John said to the Israelites: "And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham" (Matt. 3:9). Ethnic Jewishness was no indication of salvation or participation in the kingdom of God. Jesus is even more explicit: "If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham ... Ye are of your father the devil" (John 8:39, 44). Jesus even said to fruitless Israel, "the kingdom of God shall be taken from you and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (Matt. 21:43). 

Both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, neither of whom were anti-semitic, teach that to be a physical descendant of Abraham does not make one a true child of Abraham or a true Jew. "Jewishness" is a spiritual concept. 

Paul, another who is no anti-semite and who is apostle to the Gentiles, makes the same kinds of assertions. 

Romans 2:28-29: "He is not a Jew which is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh, but he is a Jew which is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter, whose praise is not of men, but of God."

(This means that a man living in Jerusalem today, a distinguished Rabbi who can trace his line back to Benjamin himself, but who rejects Jesus Christ, is not a Jew; whereas a Christian, who believes in Jesus Christ, but who has no Jewish heritage whatsoever is a Jew. Reader, whatever nationality or ethnicity you have, you who believe in Jesus Christ are a Jew!).

In Romans 9, Paul addresses the question: If God promised to save Israel, and if salvation is found only in Christ, why have so many Israelites stumbled at the Gospel and perished? Paul's response is to clarify or define the meaning of Israel.  "Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect, for they are not all Israel which are of Israel. Neither because they are the seed of Abraham are they all children, but in Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the chlldren of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed" (Rom. 9:6-8). 

(Do you see what Paul is teaching here? There are two kinds of people. First, there are the "of Israel." These belong in an external sense to the family of Abraham, to his descendants and to the nation of Israel. Second, there are the "Israel." These are the elect, the chosen of God, the ones to whom God promises and gives salvation. The ones who are merely "of Israel" do not belong to Israel. They are not Israel, writes Paul. In other words, none of the reprobate in Israel were Israel; they were not counted for the seed; and they were not Jews. And the same is true in every age. The reprobate Jewish rabbis living in Jerusalem today are not Israel, not the children of God, not Jews).

In Philippians 3:2-3, the [Jewish] apostle [to the Gentiles] writes, "Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision."  By these terms, the Apostle means the unbelieving Jewish heretics who taught that salvation depends on being circumcised and keeping the law of Moses. Paul does not call them "Jews." He calls them the "concision." The word concision is a play on words on the word circumcision. It means mutilation! Paul continues in v. 3, "for we are the circumcision." The pronoun "we" refers to all believers in Jesus Christ, and, in the context of Philippi, refers to Gentile believers in Jesus Christ. "We are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh." Thus, unbelieving "Jews" are really mutilators of the flesh; and believing Christians, of whatever ethnic origin, are  Jews!

Are modern unbelieving Jews, living in the modern state of Israel, any different from the evil workers and concision mentioned here in Philippians 3? In fact, we can broaden the application of these words: all who teach salvation by works, of whatever religion or church, are dogs, evil workers and the concision; and all who embrace salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone are the true circumcision, true Jews, true Israelites, truly Israel! 

In Revelation 2-3, the ascended Lord Jesus Christ sends messages to seven churches existing in Asia Minor in the first century AD, churches consisting of believers from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. To the church in Smyrna the ascended Christ declares, "I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan" (2:9). To the church in Philadelphia Christ says something similar: "Behold I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee" (3:9). 

Here is the assessment of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself: the unbelieving Jews lie when they claim to be Jews. They are not Jews. They are the synagogue of Satan. Satan is the accuser of the brethren and the adversary of God. Strong words from the Son of God! Who are the Jews, then? The Christians, as we call them today, are the Jews. Is that Anti-Semitism? Only if the Lord Jesus Christ HImself is an Anti-semite!

Who are the children of Abraham? 

We have already seen from the words of Jesus that He repudiated the claim of unbelieving Jews to be the children of Abraham (John 8:44). They are not all Israel (or the children of Israel) which are of Israel! Within Israel even in the days of Christ there were children of Israel or children of Abraham. And they were found in the most unlikely places! About Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, Jesus declared, "he also is a son of Abraham" (Luke 19:9); about a crippled woman, whom He healed on the Sabbath, Jesus declared, "this women, being a daughter of Abraham ..." (Luke 13:16); about Nathaniel, Jesus exclaimed, "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile" (John 1:47). Others, such as the high priest, Caiaphas, or Judas Iscariot, were not children of Abraham, Jews or Israelites at all! 

The apostle Paul develops the concept "children of Abraham" or even "seed of Abraham" at some length, and makes it very clear that the children or seed of Abraham include all those who belong to  Jesus Christ and who make up what we call in the New Testament the "church." 

We begin in the book of Romans. We have already seen that Paul restricts the term "Israel" to the elect Jews, excluding the reprobate from the number (Rom. 9:6-8). In verse 23, having developed the subject of election and reprobation at some length, Paul writes, "that [God] might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he hath afore prepared unto glory, even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles."  

Now, notice how Paul proves his point that God elects and calls His people from Jews and Gentiles. He quotes from the prophet Hosea! ("as he saith also in Osee," v. 25). This is a quotation from Hosea 2:23 and 1:10. Peter also quotes Hosea in I Peter 2:10 and applies it to the gathering of the Gentiles. In other words, believing Gentiles gathered with believing Jews into the church in the New Testament age are called "the children of the living God" (v. 26) and "the children of Israel" (v. 27). The ethnic, unbelieving Jews, no matter what their genealogical pedigree might be, are not the children of God, not the children of the promise, not Israel and not Jews!

I hope you are beginning to see the implications of this. Whatever God may have promised the Jews in the Old Testament  He did not (emphatically He did not) promise that to the reprobate, unbelieving majority of Israel, the "of Israel," but onty to the elect, and if a person can legitimately claim to be a Jew, an Israelite, an Israelite indeed, a child of Abraham, as all believing Christians can do, as we have seen, he or she can legitimately claim all the promises of God. And we do! No promises were ever made to the repobate carnal seed; and therefore that reprobate carnal seed have no right to expect any blessings from God. 

But, does this mean that God has finished with the Jews, those whose ethnicity is Jewish? No. Romans 11 teaches that throughout the New Testament age God is gathering a remnant of elect, believing Jews. Paul himself is proof of this (v. 1). God's decree of election and reprobation is being worked out among the Jews: "there is a remnant according to the election of grace" (v. 5); "the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded" (v. 7). Throughout the New Testament age elect Jews and elect Gentiles are engrafted into the organism of God, which is fundamentally Christ Himself (see John 15:1ff). Paul explains God's way with the physical descendants of Israel this way: "blindness [or sovereign hardening] in part is happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in and so all Israel shall be saved" (vv. 25-26). This does not mean that after the Gentiles have been gathered God will return to His "programme with the Jews" (which supposedly has been postponed for some 2,000 years already) but that in the way of gathering the elect Gentiles and (at the same time) a remant from the Jews "all Israel shall be saved." The word "so" in verse 26 does not mean "then." Romans 11 says nothing about a reconstituted Jewish state, a rebuilt temple or a mass conversion of ethnic Jews just prior to the Second Coming. Believing Jews and Gentiles together make up the church of Jesus Christ throughout the New Testament age. There is not, and there never shall be, another way of salvation. 

Before we leave the book of Romans, we should examine chapter 4. There, explicitly, Paul teaches that the uncircumcision (a term used for the Gentiles) are the children of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. Abraham is "the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised" (v. 11). In fact, Paul repudiates the notion that those who are of the law (those who rely on law obedience to be saved, i.e., unbelieving Jews) are the heirs of the promise: "if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect ... therefore it is of faith that it might be by grace to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed, not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all" (vv. 14, 16).

So, we, the Christians who believe in Jesus Christ, are the children of Abraham. We, not the unbelieving, Christ-rejecting, ethnic Jews, can legitimately claim Abraham as our father, and with him we can claim all the promises made to him (including inheriting the world, v. 13). 

To be continued... (answering 'Who is the Seed of Abraham?' and 'Is Israel not a Nation Forever?')

 

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